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Wisconsin musician with nearly 250 instruments composes music for biggest TV shows

Posted at 9:06 AM, Jan 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-22 10:06:28-05

PEWAUKEE — Some people learn the piano. Others learn guitar. A few may even play the piano and guitar. Then there are people like Sam Ecoff who owns and can play just about 250 instruments.

“I play a lot of things very poorly," Ecoff said.

He’s being modest. Of course, he can play guitar, piano, and drums. But it goes way beyond that. Inside Ecoff's Pewaukee home, he has a guzheng, goto, harpeji, hulusi, and so many more instruments you may have never heard of.

Sam Ecoff
Sam Ecoff plays the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument. It's one of the nearly 250 instruments he has in his home recording studio.

So what does Ecoff do that requires so many instruments?

“I think everyone wants to be a rock star at some point, but you come to realize there’s only one Taylor Swift in the world.”

He’s not rocking stages, but he is still a rock star just one you haven’t heard of.

“At this point, I have over 2,000 published compositions."

He’s a media composer. He makes music for TV shows, commercials, radio, and sometimes movies.

Sam Ecoff
Part of Sam Ecoff's recording studio.

“For one of our albums we did for the (2016) summer Olympics, we hired out about half of the Milwaukee Symphony to play these pieces," he said.

That music was used as underscores during feature stories on athletes. His music can also be heard on shows like Dr. Phil, Jersey Shore, Hoarders, Dateline, Entertainment Tonight, Supergirl, Cupcake Wars, Is It Cake, and so much more. It's not just American media either. His music is used in countries like Great Britain, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America.

“It’s not oh my gosh the bomb which wire do I cut? It’s not a car chase. It’s maybe I got to find food in the next 24-48 hours or we're going to have a problem here. So there underlying percolating tension.”

Ecoff's music isn't intended to steal the show. His scores are designed to aid the emotions of the specific scene.

"You don’t need to be virtuosic. You shouldn’t be virtuosic in fact because the music draws attention to itself when it's virutosic. What really needs to happen is you need something that’s a really cool groove that’s percolating below that sets the scene that really helps establish a mood," he said.

Sam Ecoff
A 140 modular synth designed Sam Ecoff. It took him 14 years to compile all the different modules.

He needs so many instruments because each one creates a different tone and feel.

“If I have mallets in my hands, and I’m playing this marimba it’s a very different thing than sitting at a keyboard and playing, or playing the harpeji, or playing the drums. It causes me to come up with different musical ideas," Ecoff said.

Those ideas have allowed him to have a 25-year career making music and a 36-year career teaching it. And while he looks back on his musical memories, the shows he wrote for don't stick out. It's the students he taught that make him feel most fulfilled.

"A lot of times when I talk about what I do, I say I'm a music educator because that’s the thing that I do that impacts the world that hopefully helps other people."

To Ecoff when his composing is at its best, it's designed so, "you shouldn’t even know that there was music behind the scene." It's background sound. That ad or episode eventually ends and people move on to the next thing. They don't remember the music so much. But when he teaches a student, he is giving that person skills that will last a lifetime and always be with them.

"Being able to impact somebody else’s life is perhaps more important than being a media composer and being a creator," Ecoff, who teaches at the Waukesha County Conservatory, said.

So what’s next in his musical career?

“I’m never going to retire," he said.

He loves what he does. He'll keep teaching until he can't anymore. And it wouldn't be too surprising if he picks up a few more instruments too.